Why Are Younger Workers Unhappy?

The youngest cohort is far less satisfied at work than older generations were at their age, but best-selling author Dan Goleman says companies can help improve the situation.

Daniel Goleman is a senior consultant at Goleman Consulting Group, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and host of the podcast First Person Plural: Emotional Intelligence and Beyond. He is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. 

“In general, how happy are you at work?”

This is the central question of a recent study which sought to measure the happiness levels of each generation in the workforce. Over 600 people from four generations—boomers, Gen X, millennials, and Gen Z—were asked a series of questions about their attitude towards work in the United States.

The findings revealed a disparity between generations. While the three oldest generations were similar in their happiness levels, Gen Z (the youngest generation—born 1997 to 2013—with adult members) reported particularly high levels of dissatisfaction. More than one quarter of this young cohort, 26%, said they are unhappy at work, and 17% said they are thinking about quitting their job.

Given what we know about the state of mental health in the US, this may not be surprising.   According to many studies, Gen Z are most likely to report having poor mental health. For females, the statistics are even worse. According to one study, female Gen Zers were almost twice as likely as their male counterparts to report poor mental health—21% versus 13%, respectively.

When asked where happiness is sourced from, Gen Z said that much of it has to do with how passionate they feel about their work and the degree to which their work environment brings out the best in them. In other words, this generation – just entering the workforce – needs to feel like their interests, values, talents, and abilities are being expressed within the scope of their day-to-day responsibilities.

While some of this looks like access to mentoring and opportunities for growth and development, it also looks like having meaningful opportunities to work towards a higher purpose. Gen Z is a unique generation whose norms, values, and experiences are significantly informed by global issues such as climate change and COVID-19. As a result, they continue to express heightened concerns around sustainability and human welfare. According to one consumer survey from the market researcher Forrester, 55% of Gen Zers indicated that a company's social-responsibility reputation either influences or highly influences whether or not they buy from them. This is more than double the rate of Baby Boomers.

This generation is also the most diverse generation the United States has ever seen, with just over half identifying as white non-Hispanic. Issues around diversity, equity, and inclusion take on a particular importance as they start their careers.

What will make this up-and-coming generation of workers happy and more mentally well?

Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist and the founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has developed a framework that positions purpose as one of four pillars of well-being. Built on decades of research, Davidson’s work shows how a sense of meaning in life is associated with a range of positive physical and psychological outcomes, including increased physical activity; reduced risk of early death; psychological resilience; and healthier psychological functioning.

In the simplest terms, Davidson and his colleagues define purpose as the degree to which we understand our aims and values, and how well we are able to embody them in our daily lives. On the organizational level, this looks like companies who know who they are and what they stand for aligning programs and practices around more than the bottom line. On the individual level, this looks like giving each and every employee an opportunity to experience a connection between what they do and what they care about.

Given the connection between purpose and well-being – coupled with the continued decline in mental health – it’s imperative that Gen Z be welcomed into a world where purpose is central to how an organization operates. Davidson distinguishes between happiness that depends on what happens to us in a day and well-being that comes from within. Companies that embrace purpose are in a position to help their younger workers cultivate that sense of well-being.

Co-written by Elizabeth Solomon

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.